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Nobel Laureates and Global Leaders Gather to Discuss Great Transformation

Stockholm–Changing human society to insure we all, animals and plants included, survive well on a healthy planet is no small undertaking.  But uniting the best and brightest, Nobel Laureates and global leaders, to improve our roadmap for change should help.  I certainly hope so.

Over the next four days in Stockholm, the 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability will convene more than 40 leaders to address the theme of “Transforming the World in an Era of Global Change.”  The first such meeting in Potsdam four years ago included some 15 Nobel laureates and 20 scientific leaders and yielded the Potsdam Declaration calling for a Great Transformation with global investment in sustainability science.  The second, in London, produced the St. James Palace Memorandum , eventually signed by 60 Nobel laureates, calling for a global climate change agreement with related efficiencies in energy use and limits to deforestation.

As with such international and highly choreographed meetings, the framework and speakers are set for this 3rd Symposium and many of the conclusions are already in draft.  The discussions are slated around three themes, the role of ecosystem services in human well being, the boundaries of human enterprise as it affects global well being, and the role of social innovation in creating large scale transformation.

The principal product of the 3rd Symposium, the Stockholm Memorandum, will be presented to the UN High–level Panel on Global Sustainability.  This memorandum will be modified presumably as the various discussions unfold and there will be adequate ceremony as King Carl XVI Gustav presents the work of those convened to UN representatives.  The proceedings themselves are covered by the Chatham House Rule to allow frank discussion among functionaries which will not be directly attributable.  However, the final day of the symposium will provide an open discussion with members of business and civil society as well as key scientists, policy makers and representatives of a large, concerned populous.

The challenge, of course, is not in just identifying problems, but finding ways to engage broad constituencies and changing behavior.  What has happened since Potsdam?  Or St. James?  International conventions and communications have achieved only modest traction, particularly in the U.S. where human effected climate change is contested and global agreements are severely hampered.  This glacial pace will not stem glacial loss.

The solutions divined by the laureates and experts assembled, I believe, must seriously call for and suggest marketing strategies and budgets that will effectively guide global citizens to expand their personal geography.  For those who are informed, local decisions, envisioned on scale, have increasingly visible global consequences.  Like the choice to use wind-generated energy or reduce driving personal cars.  But for most, the problems are too distant and individual action is deemed to miniscule to matter.  That must change.

The ambitions of this 3rd Symposium are smartly defined and are on the right track. But I do wonder about the capacity of the leaders assembled.  Are they well enough versed to envision new ways to communicate human dependence on functioning natural systems? Most of the laureates have their strengths in physics, chemistry, some in literature and politics. To communicate the value of “ecosystem services,” a concept in need of a linguistic makeover, requires not only those who have studied the concept, like Gretchen Daily, thankfully invited, but also those who are strategic marketers versed in tweeting and pitching in tailored ways through many different frames.  Are these innovators in the halls as well?  We will see.

I will be watching intently as to which mechanisms will arise, and how the Stockholm Memorandum will take the concept of Great Transformation quickly to action.  Perhaps strong leadership, creatively transmitted, will light a brighter path for those open to change.

John Francis serves as Vice President for Research, Conservation, and Exploration at the National Geographic Society, directing funding of these disciplines through the Committee for Research and Exploration, the Conservation Trust, and the Expeditions Council, Young Explorers, and Waitt grants programs. Francis also serves on boards for the National Park System, UNESCO, and the IUCN.  John received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz and spent five years as a postdoctoral fellow and research associate at the Smithsonian Institution studying the behavioral ecology of marine mammals. Since his beginning roles as grantee and then producer of wildlife films for National Geographic, he has worked to enhance connections between the scientific/conservation community and the public– made possible through the Society’s funding of path breaking projects and global media reach.


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